It is almost impossible for anyone to continue to choose misery after becoming aware that it is a choice.
That quotation is from William Glasser the famous 20th century psychiatrist. I studied Glasser’s work back in my seminary days when my counseling professor had us read Reality Therapy, Glasser’s great contribution to clinical psychiatry. Reality Therapy focuses on personal choice, personal responsibility and personal transformation, and while much of what he wrote is controversial today, for most people without severe brain disorders his ideas remain challenging.
I remember years ago, my counseling professor telling us about an idea from Glasser – a concept that he found helpful for getting people to turn their lives around. He called it his four little words! I remember my professor standing at the podium and telling us to put down our pens and stop taking notes. He told us that if we forgot everything else he had taught us during the year that we were to remember his next words. And so we sat silent and listened.
The first two words are ‘if only.’ Many of my patients have spent their entire lives living in the past, he continued. They anguished everyday about what they should have done in any given situation. ‘If only’ I had better prepared for that interview, they would say; or ‘if only’ I had expressed my true feelings to the boss; or ‘if only’ I had taken a different coarse of studies in college. If only, if only, if only – these patients were wallowing in a sea of regret that became an emotional drain for them. They were constantly depressed and disheartened, obsessed and angry, down and out. So you know what I told them to do? We waited to hear our professor’s magic formula for psychological health. I told them to eliminate those words from their vocabulary! He looked us in the eyes and said: It’s that simple! Stop saying ‘if only’ and substitute the words ‘next time.’ That’s the trick!
I had to teach my patients to start saying, ‘next time,’ I’m going to be more prepared; or ‘next time’ I’m going to speak my feelings clearly to my boss; and ‘next time’ I have a chance to take a class in whatever, I’m going to do it. And I helped them practice this technique day after day after day until it became a habit for them.
Then our professor looked at us and challenged us. And all of you who will try to be effective pastors must learn this same habit. When you find yourselves rehashing past errors, simply tell yourself that ‘next time’ you’ll do it differently and you’ll do it better. You’ll close the door on the matter and you’ll be free to devote your time and thoughts to the present and your beautiful, wonderful and magnificent future!
When I reflect on the stories of Jesus, it seems to me that he was a man deeply centered on the present moment with a face toward the future and what could be. He would meet a penitent woman and remind her to stop thinking about the past, stop saying ‘if only’ and go and sin no more. What he meant was, ‘next time’ live differently! He would pull Simon aside and say to him: Look what is in the past is done. There is no more ‘if only’ – from now on you are Peter, the Rock, so ‘next time’ live differently! He would eat at a tax collector’s house and he’d tell Zachaeus, I don’t want to hear anymore about the past, no more ‘if only.’ Today salvation has come to your house – ‘next time’ live differently! Jesus was a man who believed deeply in second chances and what could be.
Is there a more appropriate message for the beginning of a New Year? This year there will be many times when we will be tempted to beat ourselves up with regrets; there will be moments when we’ll rehash our past errors; there will be times when we will anguish over what we should have done. And in these moments we must believe that Jesus is challenging us to remember the four little words. We must stop saying ‘if only’ and start saying ‘next time.’ God is a God of second chances and 2011 is our new gift and our New Year. ‘Next time’ live differently. Happy New Year my friends!